WE are never going to make the slightest impact on the horrific child sexual abuse figures unless we develop a new approach to the whole problem on a number of fronts.
One area of improvement is a better system of reporting and using information of suspicion of abuse.
There has been righteous outrage that it took so long for justice to be served on the former TV actor Robert Hughes. Why it took so long to charge him if so many people knew that he was abusing. Two children went to police about him many years ago but this still was not enough for immediate action.
We must not just focus on whether background checks are tough enough or regulations on employers are strict enough. They are strict and largely irrelevant in terms of making continued improvements to child safety.
The Hughes case is not that unusual. Every day in Australia, a concerned parent or adult will go to police with the certain knowledge that abuse has happened. Without sufficient evidence to satisfy the requirements of the law, the perpetrator is unable to be charged. Nothing can happen; no warning or recognition that this person may be a danger to children can be registered.
The presumption of innocence and safeguards to protect people from being falsely accused are important tenets of our legal system. However, not having sufficient evidence to satisfy a court of law is very different from the parent, friend or worker knowing abuse has happened and the child being severely impacted.
There needs to be a way that some warning can be registered so that the evidence from bystanders or people the child has confided in, even if this would not stand up in a court of law, is noted. If another child goes to the police the accounts can be married. Such a system would help police and victims.
Another issue highlighted in the Hughes case is that victims or their families are frightened or unwilling to come forward. The reluctance of others or victims to come forward is partly because of another lesson from the Hughes case: perpetrators are usually lovely, attractive, warm people that are known and trusted by family. Abuse largely occurs in the home or trusted surroundings.
I have taken young people to police and watched them become unwilling to repeat what they have told one of my staff or me. They are too scared of the outcome or the impact on their family. Without those statements to police, nothing can be done to save the child or other children from ongoing harm.
You can understand a child, who has already suffered enough, not wanting to take that final step.
This evidence or information cannot be disregarded just because a child is not prepared to speak.
It is not right that such a tiny percentage of perpetrators are brought to trial, it does not make this country safe. I am not arguing for anyone to be able to accuse falsely. It is increasingly apparent that the law is too kind to perpetrators and too hard on the victims.
If five people from different parts of Australia reported the same person had sexually abused them, there is no national database it can be entered on so as to see the repetitive offending.
Regulations don’t stop paedophiles. Systems that link reports of suspicious activity and greater support for victims to come forward will have far more impact.
Liz Mullinar is a survivor of abuse and founder of Heal For Life Foundation, a Hunter-based centre for survivors of childhood abuse and trauma.
She was also the casting agent for the Hey Dad! series in which Hughes starred.